By Richard A. Serrano
First up was a young businessman, recently promoted at a Boston area advertising firm.
He quickly acknowledged that his friends were impressed at the prospect that he could get on the jury and make sure Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is executed for the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
"They think it's really cool," the prospective juror said. "They very much want to sentence him to death." He indicated he strongly agreed. "I can't imagine any evidence that would change what I think happened," he said. "That's generally how I feel about this case."
The second potential juror, a middle-aged project manager for John Hancock Insurance, said his wife is an intensive care unit nurse who treated some of the 260 injured in the blasts.
"It's tough," he said. "It hit my wife hard. Particularly dealing with the patients." But to put Tsarnaev to death, he added, "it has to 100 percent guilt, rock-solid."
Thursday marked the first day of individual questioning of jury candidates in the federal capital murder trial for the 21-year-old Tsarnaev.
On the third floor of the downtown federal courthouse, U.S. District Judge George A. O'Toole Jr., prosecutors and defense lawyers began the difficult work of finding a fair and impartial jury in the worst terror attack in the U.S. since September 2001.
Central to the task is whether anyone from Boston can really presume Tsarnaev innocent.
Defense attorneys say the answer is no, but their efforts to move the trial to another city have been rebuffed by the judge.
If Tsarnaev is found guilty, the second question hanging in the air Thursday was whether jurors would be willing to impose the death penalty or conversely, if they could resist public pressure and spare Tsarnaev by sentencing him to life in prison with no parole for an attack that also killed three people, including a boy.
"Let's face it," defense lawyer David Bruck told the judge, referring to the prospect of a life sentence. "We know how that would be received. There would be such an explosion of outrage. We know that. And these jurors know that."
Tsarnaev sat flanked by his defense lawyers, in a dark blazer and blue shirt, his black hair and beard trimmed since his court appearance last week. He often slumped in his chair and smiled at his lawyers, or leaned in to hear their quiet legal discussions. He often hid part of his face with one of his hands, or fidgeted with a pen.
Judge O'Toole sat at a long table with prosecutors and defense lawyers in the center of the courtroom.
He issued an order banning the public and press from the courtroom during jury questioning, a ruling that came after more than 90 percent of the court file in.
He did, however, permit a sketch artist to sit inside and draw Tsarnaev. The public and press were allowed to watch the proceedings in nearby vacant courtrooms where video feeds were provided.
But the videos never showed the faces of prospective jurors, nor were their names given.
The judge hopes to question 40 juror candidates each day, from a pool of 1,200 candidates who were summoned last week to the downtown courthouse to fill out questionnaires about themselves and their attitudes toward the case.
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